Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha through my Eyes

A couple of days ago, I went to Barnes and Nobles out of boredom to look for something to read. I ended up getting two books, the 30-Second Psychology (I know it sounds like a sad self help book but it is not). It is a book that explains each of the top-50 psychology theories in 30 second. I have always been interested in western psychology theories and the book was on sales so it is perfect!

Another book, which Barnes and Nobles listed as their classics and is recommended as a summer reading is Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha (New Translation by Rika Lesser, Introduction and Notes by Robert A.F. Thurman). I know Hermann Hesse from quite a few years back when someone gave me another book by him called the Steppenwolf. I never got to finish it as I was a little younger and felt like it was a bit heavy for me at that time… Little did I know!

In a nutshell, this book is about a journey of Siddhartha, a young Brahmin man, who abandoned his wealthy life to seek enlightenment.

I was born a buddhist but I would not call myself a true practitioner until last year when I started following one of the monks’ teaching to help me going through some tough time. I became more interested in Buddha’s teaching and so the title of the book “Siddhartha” got me (Siddhartha Gautama was Buddha’s name before he became Buddha. The name means the one who achieved his goal.)

Hermann Hesse was a German author who pretty much was among the first western authors who brought the idea of eastern beliefs and doctrines (in this case, Buddhism) to the western world through the writing of his book. He wrote Siddhartha during 1920’s when European countries were enjoying the power of colonialism. Back then, majority of westerners regarded these eastern beliefs as mysticism. According to the introduction by Thurman, Hesse then thought it would be easier for his audience to digest the core idea of Hinduism and Buddhism by introducing the doctrines through a life of a fictional man (whom he assigned Buddha’s name: Siddhartha to) than just writing somewhat a biography of the Gautama Buddha himself. The progress of Hesse’s Siddhartha on the path of enlightenment is fundamentally the same as that of the Buddha’s – born to a wealthy family, tired of the earthly life, went into forest, tried every possible way seeking for enlightenment, went through trial and error, and finally found “the way”. Hesse actually made his own Siddhartha encountered Siddharta the Buddha half way into the story – had a very meaningful conversation with him one on one, and made his character turned away from Buddha’s teaching. Many readers might raise a question here as to why Hesse would do that if he actually wanted to talk about Buddhism doctrine through the narration of his Siddhartha’s life. I think Hesse wanted to emphasize the fact that Buddha found his own way without hearing others’ teachings and so did Siddhartha. By doing this, he could also keep the story interesting to those who are unfamiliar with these eastern beliefs and just only looking to read something related to philosophy in general.

In my opinion, Hesse did a very good job in orchestrating how the life of Siddharta should play out starting from being a determined Brahmin under his father’s wing, to being a shramana ascetic in the forest, to being a lover to the beautiful Kamala, to being one of the “children people” (knowing passion, avarice and how to love, hate), then to finally being the enlightened one by living a life of a Ferryman. The way he introduced each transition and explained what the character went through in his mind during each phase are just amazing. It is a spiritual journey in less than 120 pages.

I formed a strong connection to this book half way through it. I think the fact that I have been studying Buddhism plays a very big part in it. However, I could see non-buddhist readers enjoying reading this book as well, as Hesse did not really focus on explaining the core of Hinduism and Buddhism. It might be a little challenging for those who do not have a background on these religions but I still want to recommend this book for those who have never read it and are interested in philosophy.

Have a great Sunday everyone.




One response to “Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha through my Eyes

  1. I am sure you will grow to appreciate some of the western psychological theories Fon – if nothing else they will give you much more to think about as you meet Life. Your second book choice is interesting indeed and I couldn’t help but think to myself – our journey here is one Large Mystery – we are born a mystery, live a mystery, and die a mystery:) Shalom to you dear one! Mom

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